Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Ask the Editor: Strong Female Characters

Darden North, MD, sent in this question:
It seems that some agents and publishers are looking for fictional works that feature strong female characters. Can you define a strong female character?
Hi Darden.

Not only are publishers looking for strong female leads, readers (both women and men) are as well. Readers today tend to want characters they can relate to and who are realistic. Of course, we’re not talking fantasy, erotica, or other genres where characters, both female and male are intentionally “over the top.”

A “strong female character” can be different things. There are many characteristics, but no one character would have them all. If you want your female lead or supporting character to be “strong,” then see if you can incorporate some of these (in no particular order):
Quick witted
Sense of self
Decision maker
Not perfect, has flaws
Strong in her femininity
Not rigid
Doesn’t do stupid things
Doesn’t belittle others
Can have a tragic weakness
Not black or white, but shadows of gray
Can change and grow
May or may not be in a committed relationship
Will most likely have women friends
Has a backbone
Look around at the women in your life - at home, at work, your neighbors, in your extended family - and decide what it is about each one that you like. Find a woman whose judgment you trust and ask her to look at the women in her life and tell you what she admires or respects about each.

Keep in mind that situations you put your characters in can change the way she behaves. Let’s say, your female character is asleep. She’s awakened by a strange noise. Her heart quickens. She eases down the hallway until she locates the source of the noise - the basement. Easing open the door, she reaches for the light switch, but it doesn’t work.

What does a woman do?

If she’s in the movies, she tiptoes down the stairs and gets clobbered over the head by an axe toting serial killer.

If she’s a strong, realistic, female character, she may whip out her cell and call the police. She may divert to the kitchen for a flashlight, especially since she’s probably already tried to turn on lights and thus knows the electricity is out. Or she may hesitate, pondering her options, hear the voice of her four-year-old crying, “Help me, Mommy,” and she forgets all caution and thunders down into the darkness.

Being a strong female doesn’t mean she free of weaknesses. Just like any character, to be believable she must have a flaw or two.

The strength of a female character seldom comes via muscles. It comes from within.

Thank you, Darden, for your question.

Darden North writes medical thrillers and murder mysteries. To date, he has authored and published three novels, which have been awarded nationally. In his third and current novel, Fresh Frozen (October 2008, hardcover), someone wants to steal a movie star’s embryos as the boundary between good and evil medicine blurs and reality replaces science fiction. Under the eye of an Internet voyeur, a policeman and his tormented wife discover that human reproductive tissue can lead to murder.


Helen Ginger is an author and freelance editor. You can visit her website and blog, Straight From Hel, follow her on Twitter, or subscribe to her free newsletter, Doing It Write, now in its eleventh year of publication.

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  1. Good definitions - especially the word 'spunky!'

  2. That's right, Diane! When we think of strong female characters, we think of spunk and you. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Well done, Helen. Women HAVE come a long way, baby, and to write a strong woman into your story nowadays you'd better develop a character with all the multiple talents and dimesnions you've described here.

    The Old Silly

  4. What a great post. I have a female MC and I'm always looking for what people view a strong female lead to be.

    Thank you.


  5. If I had to choose, I like best the "sense of self." I think it informs so many of the other qualities if the female character knows and embraces her self, including all her quirks and insecurities as well as positive attributes. Great ideas here, Helen!

  6. I like the fact that you pointed out the strong female character does have flaws. She can handle a lot, but is still quite human. Great post.

    And the book sound interesting too.

  7. When I think of a strong woman, the first word that comes to my mind is 'independant.' A woman who can function on her own, who can think for herself, who is willing to go where no man or woman has gone before.

    A woman who can be vulnerable to her mate without losing her identity. A woman committed to social justice and causes.

    A strong woman who can show her strength either verbally or with the strokes of her pen.

    I think of the lead character in my own book, Valencia Banks Freeman.
    Valencia Banks Freeman!

  8. Isn't it great that you can consider the qualities of a strong female character and then think of the character you've created?

  9. My female protagonists are usually woman with self-esteem issues that are forced at some point to rely on inner strengths and resources they never knew they possessed, ultimately resulting in positive life changes and a much better self-image. I was happy to see that they incorporate lots of things on the list.

  10. You missed the big one. She doesn't wait for the guy to rescue her. ;)

  11. A strong woman is not:

    - needy
    - whiny
    - always second-guessing her opinions and intuition
    - in search of validation from a man
    - obsessed with her looks
    - obsessed with her clothes
    - worried about getting a date (because guys are great, but she doesn't mind going to the movies alone)
    - overly hung up on her pets

    A strong woman has already evacuated the house and called 911 BEFORE the spooky music starts to play.

    A strong woman knows how to fire a gun or improvise a flamethrower from a can of hairspray and a lighter. ;)

    I think we all want our protagonists, male and female, to be "strong" because we want to see ourselves in them, and we want to see ourselves as strong, whether we are or not. Self-confidence is a very attractive trait.

    "Strong" isn't "perfect." Nor does it mean a b**** with brick walls no man would even attempt to scale. I'm glad you addressed that here.

    This is a great post!

  12. It used to be the norm for women to be weak and lean on men, but it's a brave new world these days.
    To reflect that, in Killer Career, I have the heroine do the rescuing, not the other way around.

    Morgan Mandel

  13. I very much enjoyed reading your definitions of a "strong female" and looking over your list, I think I already used most of the traits in my forthcoming book, "The DAYES of Wyoming". The protagonist is a female horse trainer in Wyoming during the late 1800s to early 1900s.
    She, Bertha Daye was intelligent,independent,compassionate, confident, as well as multi-dimensional and a decision maker.
    But then, that was not long after the time that Wyoming was admitted to the union as the first territory to permit women to vote.
    Way to go Wyoming!
    Thank you for your insight.

  14. Great list to think about when creating a new character, Helen. Here's another one to add. The first word I think of when I think of a strong female character: resilient.

  15. A strong woman also isn't a man in a woman's body. Men and women think differently, and they have different ways of dealing with problems.

    A man will more likely use a physical solution, a woman a social solution. Both solutions are legitimate and make neither gender weaker than the other.

    A strong woman also doesn't become lesser or lose many of the qualities that make her strong when a man enters the equation.

  16. This post is especially helpful to me since two other authors and I are trying to put together a panel on "Strong Women in Fiction" for library presentations. Our list of examples was an interesting mix of mystery protagonists and classical/historical characters, since two of us are mystery writers and the other writes historical women's fiction.

  17. What great additions y'all are making to the list. I love them all. Keep 'em coming.

  18. Hey, Helen, this must be "character" week for a lot of us! Yesterday I blogged about character too, comparing Harry Potter to Percy Jackson (who doesn't have nearly the moral character Harry does). www.abraxan.blogspot.com and Stephen J. Cannell has a writing lesson on his site about creating characters. (http://tinyurl.com/yl8nytz)

    My women characters tend to be quite feisty (spunky) and self-reliant. If they heard a noise in the house, they'd grab a gun (or whatever else was close at hand) so they'd be armed while calling 911! And if need be, they'd use that weapon with good aim and the right amount of force. The female characters in my novel, "Star Sons: Dawn of the Two" (http://bit.ly/cLXrEi) and its upcoming sequel, "The Gathering Alliance" are partners to their men, not subservient.

    Great list!

  19. Great question, great answer! I had trouble with my female character in This Is the Place at first because her character arc was to start out with her needing to get some understanding (and backbone!). I wanted to keep my modern readers and still stay true to that arc. It's after the fact, but I'd love to hear what you have to say about that.
    Carolyn Howard-Johnson
    Blogging at Writer's Digest 101
    Best Website picks www.sharingwithwriters.blogspot.com

  20. Heroines in fiction have definitely come a long way, regardless of genre. My own heroines are strong women
    that complement their male
    counterparts according to reviewers. And that pleases me!

  21. My first reaction to this post (in regards to my own ms) was fear that my protag is too weak! She cares about what everyone thinks about her, she needs validation from males, she's worried about her appearance. (She's sixteen, so give her a break!) But then I realized the weakness is her starting place; she doesn't END there. Her growth is actually a matter of finding her strength. But I wonder, will her initial weakness make readers stop reading?

  22. Thank you, Helen, for answering my question and to Morgan Mandel for
    encouraging me to ask it. When I attended a recent writing conference that offered the opportunity to pitch to multiple agents, I was asked point blank if my current work in progress,"Wiggle Room," had a strong female character. At the time it did not, but believe me now it does! And your thorough, descriptive answer will work well in the continued development of my female protagonist Dr. Diana Bratton.
    With much appreciation,
    Darden North

  23. I think a big difference is in our perception of what women will sacrifice themselves for. We used to believe that women would sacrifice themselves for family. Nobody doubted the strength or ferocity of a woman protecting her offspring, parents or siblings. Men, on the other hand, were expected to sacrifice themselves for abstriactions such as honor, the unit, or the nation. Now we know that women can be equally fierce defenders of such abstractions.

    I think the watershed in our thinking, though not recgonized at the time, was Title IX. Before Title IX we had women athletes who were physically adept in individual sports but not in team sports. A team sport requires not only physically demanding training, but a willingness to sacriice yourself for a team made up of unrelated individuals--an abstraction, you might say. Billie Jean King's great gift to women is that she pushed for Title IX and, in particular, for participation in team sports.

  24. Dear Helen,

    Love your strong list. I grew up reading novels from the early 1900s through the 1940s. These heroines shaped my sense of how to be in the world...strong & principled.

    Women in the world and women in literature are not so different then and now. It's the continuity of the heart and mind that counts.

    Janet Riehl

  25. I think another thing we as authors must remember when creating our strong women characters is to also create men deserving of them. Even in today's modern world there are men intimidated by strong women as well as men who are only drawn to strong women.

  26. Wonderful post and I am really enjoying the comments. A lot to absorb here about how to create a strong female character. I wish this post and these comments had been available when I was creating the central character in One Small Victory. There are nuances here that would have been helpful.

    I really liked Marylyn's comment about being careful not to create a masculine character in a woman's body. Some of the popular strong, action-oriented women in television and film seem to be just that, and they don't ring true to me.

  27. A real woman will call the police, the neighbor, the ex husband, and then her best friend to stay on the line with her while she brandishes a fireplace poker at the top of the basement stairs. Then if the noise gets louder she'll wonder if it's really the dryer or if an armadillo found its way through the doggy door. Then if the door knob turns, she'll be out the front door to wait with all those people she called.

    I hate those movies where people walk around in the dark. In a nightie. And then run UPSTAIRS.

  28. A real woman will call the police, the neighbor, the ex husband, and then her best friend to stay on the line with her while she brandishes a fireplace poker at the top of the basement stairs. Then if the noise gets louder she'll wonder if it's really the dryer or if an armadillo found its way through the doggy door. Then if the door knob turns, she'll be out the front door to wait with all those people she called.

    I hate those movies where people walk around in the dark. In a nightie. And then run UPSTAIRS.

  29. This is a wonderful post. Somewhere along the way someone gave me a little wall thing that I still have. The title is "A Strong Woman Versus a Woman of Strength." It sort of mirrors your post. Women of strength aren't Xena the Warrior Princess, but they find a way to get the job done.

  30. Susan, I think you've hit on another characteristic of a strong woman - she doesn't fall for a man who's not her equal and who doesn't love her strength.

    Carolyn, I love your question. I'm going to address it next time.

    A.L., I don't think your 16 year old's initial weakness will stop readers, assuming she's not a total ball of mush.

    Darden, thank you for the question.

    Mark, you're right about Title IX. It's difficult to imagine our world without all that resulted from that, but it was a struggle when it came into existence.

    Sharla, I so totally agree with you. When I see someone, male or female, just go blindly up (or down) the dark stairs after hearing something suspicious, it drives me to turn off the TV.

  31. Oh, my, I guess it's been a long day. I read the last "quality" as "has a backhoe"...but you know, it could work!I'll bet that'd be one strong woman!

  32. Thank you, Susan. It's always good to end the day laughing.

  33. Good post, Helen. I'm writing a man right now. I'd love to hear what qualities a strong male character has :)

  34. I like characters who have a value system, and walk their talk. Sure they fail sometimes, but they get back on course. Their failings just help them become forgiving humans, and I think that's another quality of a strong woman.

    Good post and comments everyone!


  35. Good post, loved the list and the fact that a strong woman recognizes her physical capabilities and works around them.
    The comments are perfect!
    My new female lead will be in her fifties, I think, adding wisdom and understanding to her flaws and strengths and invisibility. Lots of great ideas here.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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